City blames staffing shortage after some Houston area 911 callers were sent to recording

City is blaming staffing shortage

HOUSTON – Houston Police Department Chief Troy Finner had a one-word reaction to KPRC 2′s latest investigation, “Unacceptable”.

That was Finner’s response when KPRC 2 Investigates informed him 911 callers in the city of Houston were being met with a recording and being placed on hold until a call taker was able to handle their emergency.

Finner admitted he was “unaware” of the practice.

On the other hand, Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Pena was aware of the issue and has concerns.

“There is not a more frustrating issue than when you call 911 and nobody answers,” he said.

How many times has it happened?

The answer could not be ascertained since the Houston Emergency Center does not track the number of times the recordings have been deployed.

KPRC 2 Investigates obtained the 22-second recording that callers may receive after dialing 911. A male voice on the recording says, “You have reached the Houston Emergency Center 911. All call takers are busy at this time. "

The recording then pivots to a Spanish version. In some cases, when the recording comes to a conclusion a caller is met with silence.

Marco Antonio said it happened to him less than two weeks ago in Montrose after he witnessed a woman having a mental health crisis.

“She almost got hit by a car, so naturally I called 911,” said Antonio, who then got hit with a recording. “Is this serious? Like is this for real?” Those were the questions he said he was left to ask himself.

Community safety advocate, Tomaro Bell, hasn’t experienced being put on hold but says it’s concerning.

“I can’t imagine your house being on fire and you call 911 and a recorder comes on,” Bell said. “There is no reason that people should be getting a recording in 2020.”

Robert Mock is Deputy Director of the Houston Emergency Center and acknowledges that people in an emergency are being placed on hold.

According to Mock, part of the problem is a significant staffing shortage.

Currently, he says they are down over 40 call takers, with many employees routinely working 12 hour days.

“Like any other industry, we are scrambling to hire people,” said Mock.

However, making hires has been challenging as a result of pay. Call takers for the City of Houston start between $16 to $18 an hour.

Mock said former employees have left for higher salaries elsewhere, and as a result, he is working on finding a solution.

“I’m in talks with HR now looking at getting us some pay adjustments to help us become a little more competitive,” he said.

However, even with a full staff, there are times where the system can still be overwhelmed. Recent examples include last winter’s freeze and Harvey, when the recording was first introduced.

“If we have the proper staffing that we need on a day-to-day basis, it won’t happen as often,” said Mock.

However, when asked if it will still happen? Mock quickly responded, “Occasionally yeah, it will happen.”

Antonio questions reaching out in an emergency if the city of Houston has this system in place.

“Why call if I’m just going to get a recording?” he said. “You’re playing with people’s lives.”

The city’s call center said their year-to-date number shows that nearly 92% of all 911 calls have been answered in 15 seconds or less, which is the national standard.

Mock said as of Oct. 20, the city has received 1,741,488 911 calls. This means approximately 140,000 calls have not been answered in less than 15 seconds. However, Mock said the city is doing better than the national average.

The city of Houston is hiring call takers, job description and information on how to apply can be found here: https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/houston


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